Henning: Soria makes case to remain closer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Something a baseball team loves after playing 8½ immaculate innings is to not mess up the ninth.

The Tigers triumphed on all fronts Tuesday in their jewel of a 2-0 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park. And a big reason they didn't mar their masterpiece had to do with some smooth ninth-inning work by bullpen closer Joakim Soria, who minus any walks or hits or commotion put away the Pirates in snappy 1-2-3 fashion.

Soria now has saved three games in three save opportunities as the Tigers deal with the happy reality of a 7-1 record. They have played excellent baseball, in all categories, including how they finish games, which some might remember has not always been the breeziest of exercises these past few years.

Soria's numbers confirm why no one, including his teammates, got overly nervous when he arrived following eight innings of gold-medal work by starter Shane Greene. Soria has a 2.45 ERA. He has held enemy batters to a .143 batting average. He has not walked a single hitter, one reason why he has a sabermetrician-thrilling WHIP of 0.55.

This is not a bad man to have policing the ninth, as his 181 career saves might attest.

And so why the Tigers would change anything even after Joe Nathan presumably returns from his elbow strain is fair to question.

The Tigers, officially, have had a different position here. Nathan is the closer, they vowed at the end of a spring camp that hadn't gone all that spectacularly for a 40-year-old pitcher. The decree was that Nathan would return to his closer's shift as soon as he arrived home from the disabled list.

There are a couple of reasons why this might not be a good idea. And one reason is that it didn't seem to be a terribly sound plan as the team departed spring camp in Florida.

Statistically speaking

Numbers tell a story here, even if spring training statistics don't always testify under oath.

Nathan: 13 games, 4.63 ERA, 11 2/3 innings, 13 hits, four walks, eight strikeouts, opposing batting average of .271. This followed a 2014 season in which Nathan, who had 32 saves, also had a very bad 4.81 ERA and an even worse WHIP of 1.53.

Soria's spring training stats: nine games, 9-1/3 innings, two hits, three walks, eight strikeouts, .067 opposing batting average.

Of course, Soria was going to be used in an equally critical role for the Tigers, as eighth-inning set-up man, so it wasn't as if a man of his skills was to be wasted as the Tigers headed north for Opening Day.

But the ninth inning is the capstone for any big-league bullpen. You need to finish games that for eight innings have been carefully crafted in constructing a potential victory. Otherwise, a team and its fan base becomes irked and demoralized.

From what was seen in Florida, factored alongside inconsistencies from 2014, the Tigers were, and are, playing with fire if they insist on Nathan closing.

Nathan during spring camp all but conceded a bullpen closer's best weapon – a four-seam fastball – was no longer operative. He worked mainly with a sinking two-seamer and on a pitch that has always served him well, his slider.

There were times when it was an adequate, even artful repertoire. But not often was it a convincing package. He gave up a lot of deep fly balls, he was behind in his share of counts, and rarely did he have a clean inning, even against Grapefruit League competition.

The impression here was firm: He can occasionally succeed with the pitching inventory a 40-year-old man now features. But it's nothing that can be expected to work on a repeat basis during regular-season games.

Baseball men whose lives have been wedded to understanding the nuances of big-league skills have different thoughts here, beginning with Nathan's boss, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

GM backing

Dombrowski believed Nathan performed more than adequately and that there was no issue with respect to who would close games for the Tigers in 2015. Nathan, in fact, got a save on Opening Day when he struck out Torii Hunter to finish off Detroit's first victory from what has been a heady first 10 days for the Tigers.

Nathan then went on the DL with his strained elbow. The Tigers have since had no serious issues with their bullpen, and none in the ninth, thanks in great measure to Soria.

But the team may stick to its earlier guns and re-install Nathan for the ninth. At which time it will be asked: How much does a contract weigh on evaluations?

Nathan is owed $10 million this season, with a $1 million buyout for 2016 should the Tigers opt to not renew him for another $10 million in '16.

No team likes eating big salaries. They do it, as the Tigers did when they bought out Gary Sheffield and his $13 million in remaining pay in 2009. But it takes an extreme circumstance, as was the case with Sheffield who never quite overcame a 2007 shoulder injury.

Sometimes it goes the other way. This appeared to be the case a few years ago when Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis and their fat contracts made the team, even if there was little to suggest either pitcher could seriously help Detroit.

The Tigers desperately want Nathan to succeed. They want him in the bullpen, pitching well, which is the best way also to justify an expensive contract.

But they want more to win. And at some time point soon they will need to decide about that ninth inning.

Do you fix something that, for a change, isn't broken?

Not in this view.

You leave Soria as your closer. You hope also that Bruce Rondon, as expected, is back with the team within a few weeks and becomes your knockdown answer as set-up man, which all the more could cement the back end of a bullpen rather than loom as its soft spot.

Nathan? If he can pitch in the ninth, as the Tigers insist he can, he would be of help elsewhere in a game. Role isn't critical. Performance is.

The Tigers have a retooled lineup in 2015, with more speed and more hitting 1 through 9 than they have featured on any team from their modern era.

Their starting pitching has been admirable, even after losing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Behind those starters they are playing a grand brand of defense.

That leaves only one issue, one that just about everyone has agreed was this team's potential weak link: the bullpen.

So far, so good. And so far, a big reason it has been good is because of a man named Soria.

Don't mess with success. Not when success always seemed to have been more safely assured with Soria as Detroit's closer.